Coloring Yourself Curious: Exploring the Adult Coloring Craze

Have you heard about the “adult coloring craze”?  Believe it or not, adults young and old are getting out their colored pencils and buying coloring books like never before.  In the process, they have helped to fuel an emerging, multimillion dollar industry of adult coloring books.

In January of 2016, five of the top 15 best-selling books on Amazon were coloring books for adults. The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and other widely distributed publications have all printed stories about adult coloring within the past year. 

What, you may wonder, makes for an “adult” coloring book? According to Johanna Basford, author of the ground-breaking Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, the difference lies in the artwork. Adult coloring books are more “sophisticated – no images of a car or a bunny with a bow in its hair,” she says.

Basford might well be regarded as the inventor of the entire adult coloring genre. Her Secret Garden has sold two million copies since it first appeared on shelves in 2013. The follow-up, Enchanted Forest, has proven to be just as popular, selling a quarter of a million copies in its first month of publication last year. 

The illustrations in Secret Garden feature highly detailed, outdoor scenes based on the artist’s expansive home garden. These intricate landscapes are inviting to the eye, and many find it hard to stop coloring them. In keeping with the book’s title, Basford has populated her scenes with “secrets” that colorists can uncover as they go. Secret Garden includes a catalogue of hidden items to be found throughout the book, lending an element of pursuit to each page. 

While Basford’s designs would probably not hold the fleeting attention of a child, their intricacy is the main draw for adults. Katie Blanchard, Director of Programs at Youville House, recently took time after a busy day to color in a page from Secret Garden. “When I first looked at the page it was a bit overwhelming,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d be able to sit still for it. But after about ten minutes my mind calmed down and I got really engaged in filling in the shapes.” 

Just one page can require multiple sittings and hours of focused activity to complete. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the finished product can be a source of genuine accomplishment. 

Explaining the Trend

As more adults rediscover the simple appeal of coloring, professionals are weighing in on the psychological underpinnings and health benefits of this trend. According to Scott Bea, PSYD, a clinical psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic,  “Coloring draws attention away from yourself and helps you stay in the present moment. In this way, it is very much like a meditative exercise. When your mind is focused on a simple activity and not disturbed by thoughts and appraisals, your brain tends to relax. The fact that coloring has a predictable outcome also can be relaxing. It is hard to mess up, and, even if you do, there is no real consequence. As a result, adult coloring can be a wonderful lark, rather than an arduous test of your capacities.”

Julie Beck, associate editor of The Atlantic, believes that engaging with interesting patterns is inherently relaxing. Beck’s article, “The Zen of Adult Coloring Books,” documents her own conversion from skeptic to a full-fledged colorist. She writes that adult coloring books are part of today’s “trend of meditation and mindfulness that’s been going for some time now, one response among many to the high levels of stress many adults are living with.” 

Psychologists tend to agree with this meditative take on the coloring craze. Dr. Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist in New York, says that “it’s the repetition that’s key to the relaxation response.” Michaelis and others have cited Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, in connection with adult coloring. Always ahead of his time, one of Jung’s relaxation exercises for patients was to “prescribe” them intricate mandalas to color. 

The Social Aspect of Coloring

In addition to helping people relax, coloring lends itself to social interaction. A Minnesota woman named Jenny Fenlason had no trouble starting an adult coloring club. “I thought coloring would be a fun way to get together and do something that engages a little bit of your creative side, but allows you to talk,” she told Minnesota Public Radio. “I threw out the idea and a lot of people were interested.” Fueled by social media, her coloring club has since expanded, with chapters springing up in Las Vegas, New York, and even London!

Last month Youville, a group of residents formed their own coloring club. Supplied with colored pencils and a few pages from Basford’s acclaimed books, they spent a recent Wednesday afternoon collectively contemplating their work as it emerged on the page.